A hoarder lurks between the layers of despair. My niece, Kay, was a hoarder. She hoarded enough things to fill an entire house. She knew the love of God and family. We cared about her. We aren't sure why things got so bad for her. It is certainly beyond us now, and the sad cliché, “too little too late,” rattles in my head.
When Kay stops inviting family members or friends into her house, it is disquieting. Too many times she uses the same excuses:
It’s too messy, I'm too busy, not today.
There are repairs making a mess everywhere.
I’m making props for the church play and stuff is everywhere.
The carpet is being replaced and stuff is everywhere,
Meanwhile, Kay continues to collect other people's junk. Boxes of discards find a home in her house too many times. Old furniture and several boxes of rubbish fill the garage after Grandma moves to the senior home. No doubt the items may work as props in an upcoming play. Nothing wrong with re-purposing things. She hunts down deals and uses coupons like other frugal people. The stacking continues.
Kay catches a bad cold that settles into a deep cough, but insists she is doing okay. Months pass, and she is still coughing. Brows furrow and uneasy feelings grow among friends and family as Kay promises to see a doctor between coughs.
One day, Kay’s mother drives her home and asks to use the bathroom. Kay refuses, exits the car and rushes inside the house. Her mother is left outdoors knocking and calling out to no avail. This story compels me to think that I would knock the door down. I'm a battering ram kind of mother, no door is getting between me and my stubborn child. But this mother let her adult daughter be. She did not beat the door down. None of us beat the door down later either.
Kay is a grown woman. It's her house, and she can keep it as she chooses, but she is hiding something in there. So what, if she likes to collect too many things? Whose business is it that she’s a pack rat? Not ones to force one’s way in, siblings had stopped asking to come inside her home. Kay joins the family gatherings at local restaurants or other relatives’ homes. None of her four siblings nor her mom enter the house while time passes. Life takes over. The issue, “What is going on in your house?” stews on a dismal back burner and Kay is still struggling with that terrible cough.
Then one day, after work, Kay faints in the parking lot by her car and a coworker calls an ambulance. Kay never regains consciousness and dies a few days later in the hospital. The shock of her sudden death reverberates throughout the family with a crashing jagged rhythm. We gather to mourn her in the church. It is all so sudden; unexpected. We are haunted by the loss of her.
Opening Kay’s front door reveals the enormous piles of stuff filling all the space in the house. A clear path is not obvious beyond the towers and stacks. The bedroom is impassable as are the hallways. Each room is filled to overflowing. Blanket and pillow reveal her bed, the living room sofa, spilling over with old pizza boxes and used paper plates. Numerous shopping bags have items with tags still on them. Every room has piles of broken junk mixed with new things. The family pulls the house apart, carrying most of it to a rented dumpster while processing their own layers of anger and regret.
Most perplexing are the boxes full of unwrapped gifts in groups of five. Name tags on packages identify her three sisters, one brother and her mom. Under the gift wrapping there are flat screen TVs, dated computers never opened, various tech related gifts, clothing, and household goods. Thousands of dollars spent on gifts she never actually gives them. Her brother remembers a discussion about an item he unwraps. Apparently, she buys items in groups of five not wanting to leave out any of them. Kay is generous. There are several sets of these gifts. Why has she never given the things to her loved ones? What is she waiting for?
Her personal anxieties manifest in throwing no thing away as it may be needed later. Professionals write volumes about the anxiety-ridden complexity a hoarder lives within. There is professional treatment available which is met with varying degrees of success.
Keeping gifts instead of giving them stems from worrying too much that a chosen gift is not suitable. Better deliberate some more and keep the item for another time. Keeping all sorts of things becomes important. Eventually nothing is thrown out. Trash is saved as one loses track of value, and worries increase that something of value may fall into the trash. Better save it all. The inward and outward life is a swirl of confusion. Holding onto things brings a sense of comfort while it strangles the holder.
The never opened gifts, such as technology items bought years ago don't appear to have been plugged in or used. They are outdated and not useful now. In this case, thieves do not break in and steal, but moth and rust do corrupt, and mice in various stages abound throughout the mess.
It takes several weeks to clean out the house. If you've never watched television shows like “Hoarders,” or “Buried Alive,” don't start now. The problem is repulsive and heartbreaking. The whole scene clashes with one’s righteous desire for cleanliness and order. It is painful to witness a hoarder falling apart as a piece of trash is taken from the hoard. Even if children are suffering, marriages ending, and lives are obviously breaking beyond belief, anxiety over losing a shred of the hoard overwhelms the hoarder. The line between what is useful and what is trash has long been blurred beyond recognition. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” is all depressing rubble made of wood, hay and stubble.
The family is stricken that no one knows how desperate things are for Kay until now. There is never a rock ‘em sock ‘em intervention to fix her as seen on TV. We can't help but blame ourselves for not fixing her; even knowing she didn't want help when offers were made. We believe she loves the Lord, but where does this hideous mess fit into that? A lethal combo this: anxiety, mental illness and desperation. We can't help but feel we let her down. We weren't there for her in the right way. She has such a void to fill, it can never be filled with things which pile up to sicken and enslave her. They are part of the lie belonging to the Prince of Lies.
Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes. And you are your sister’s keeper and your niece’s and your neighbor’s keeper too. I face it. There are times when I am doing a lousy job of it. I can't do everything, but I can better care. We wish we had broken through the front door so we could at least say, “Remember that day we cared so much that we broke down Kay’s door?”
After several rounds of frustration and many dumpsters later, the weeks pass. The family feels distraught and relieved as voices echo throughout the empty house now free of all the clutter. Amidst hugs and tearful promises to stay in touch, the metal FOR SALE sign remains to rattle in the vacant front yard.
The true end of the story is hope waiting patiently for love at the end of our weak passage. In the midst of human weakness, love breaks through. Love breaks through death to surround Kay with the eternal care for which she longs. She believes in Jesus. Therein lies hope enough for all of us. Enough grace to quiet a rattling care.